Sustainable practices worth the effort

Creating a healthy community can start with your coffee cup.

At Emory University, we are removing polystyrene (“Styrofoam”) from our coffee-vendor services, dining halls, catering and procurement website. We are encouraging our community to use recyclable or compostable options. This change is just one piece of Emory’s sustainability initiative, a comprehensive effort to create a model for healthy living and a thriving environmental, social and economic future.

In metro-Atlanta, putting sustainable practices in place can seem too daunting, expensive and time-consuming. But it can be done. The payoff — in dollars and social capital — is worth it.

Styrofoam is really effective at insulating hot food and beverages and protecting fragile materials. It is also relatively inexpensive. However, the price of Styrofoam does not reflect its social and environmental costs. Most of us know Styrofoam will live for years in a landfill before completely breaking down. These landfills often degrade the quality of life and property values of communities and release greenhouse gases. The production of Styrofoam also releases volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog.

Accounting for environmental, social and financial costs led Emory to adopt aggressive sustainability goals and change many practices. Emory’s Styrofoam elimination effort will support our goal to divert 65 percent of our waste from landfills to recycling or composting. We are more than halfway there.

Emory also has reduced energy consumption by a little over 22 percent since 2005. We are working to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2020. The environmental and social benefits are clear. These efforts have resulted in approximately $23.1 million in utility savings to date. Those savings allow Emory to support academic and research endeavors rather than spend these funds on utility bills.

Our sustainability initiative has also already met the goal of having 50 percent of our staff and students commute using alternatives other than driving solo. We purchase 26 percent local or sustainable food for our cafeterias; our goal is 75 percent.

We are educating the future leaders of our local and global community. Creating a campus that is an immersion experience in sustainable living and “walking the talk” of a healthy, responsible and ethical way of living is our goal. We still have miles to go, but we see a day when composting or taking the stairs become as second nature as putting on your seat belt when you drive.

So, when we talk about creating healthy, prosperous and vibrant communities in our metro region and state — particularly in these tight economic times — it is important that we adopt full-cost accounting: What’s the social cost? The environmental and public health cost?

Only then can we see our $1.50 coffee in a Styrofoam cup costs a whole lot more.

Ciannat M. Howett is director of Sustainability Initiatives at Emory University.

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